Patton Like You've Never Seen Him Before

A new History Channel series on George S. Patton points the way toward a brave new world of digitally enhanced history. Michael Korda on whether it does Old Blood and Guts justice.

04.12.09 8:20 AM ET

The History Channel’s new ten-part series on George S. Patton—which began, inappropriately enough, on Friday, April 10, just in time for Easter—is an ambitious attempt to recast the age-old formula of the “war documentary” with the methods and computer-generated visual tricks of “war games,” the digitized kind that fascinate and even obsess male teenagers and some adults on computers and PlayStation. Carl Lindahl, of Flight 33 Productions, is to be congratulated for trying to breathe new life into an old format that has gone sticky with time, combat always being indicated by shots of cannons being loaded and fired or bombers dropping bombs, the same old footage being used over and over again.

As Al Jolson said in The Jazz Singer when, for the first time, a human voice was heard in a movie, “You ain’t heard nothing yet, folks!” This is the beginning of a new era in historical documentaries, and a very exciting one.

Unfortunately, the computer-generated images in Patton 360 are rather static and unconvincing, and tend to show the same thing as old war footage. The same lumbering German Tiger tank appears from time to time to signify a German attack (though in fact the Germans had very few Tigers in North Africa), so that it rapidly becomes a cliché; having said that, it’s a much more interesting way of trying to show war than most soporific television documentaries and is clearly the first step to a more interesting and lively way of presenting historical events on television. A round of applause for the producers and the animators of Patton 360, therefore. As Al Jolson said in The Jazz Singer when, for the first time, a human voice was heard in a movie, “You ain’t heard nothing yet, folks!” This is the beginning of a new era in historical documentaries, and a very exciting one.

That’s the good news. The bad news is that all the other faults of historical documentaries are still there—the portentous script and the ponderous reading of it, for example. Since David McCullough has proved that a good script and a good voice can make all the difference in the world, why not use him, or someone who has at least some of his talents? (McCullough’s book John Adams inspired the HBO miniseries, and Seabiscuit and The Civil War enjoy his narration.) But no, this is the usual heavy-handed narration of documentaries, as if the Ken Burns-McCullough collaboration on the Civil War had never been made.

Courtesy Flight 33 Productions, LLC

Then too, there’s the old-fashioned context of the whole thing, as if we were watching a Fox Movietone News short from World War II—there is no attempt to show what the other side (the Vichy French and the Germans in episode one) are thinking, or indeed why they are fighting at all. The first episode makes no attempt to describe what the situation was, not even a mention of the fact that Eisenhower was in command of Torch. There is only a passing reference to the fact that Patton was in command of only one of three invasion forces spread out over nearly 1,200 miles and no explanation for the reason Rommel and his Deutsche Afrika Korps were in Tunisia in the first place: They had been driven back in retreat over a thousand miles from El Alamein, on the Egyptian border, where General Bernard Montgomery’s British 8th Army had won a brilliant victory.

The whole purpose of Torch was to trap Rommel between Montgomery’s 8th Army, driving the combined German-Italian armies back, and the Anglo-American forces under the command of Lt. Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower, advancing from Morocco and Algeria—a kind of giant nutcracker, intended to squeeze the enemy to death in the mountains of Tunisia. The hapless French forces, against which Patton won his first victories in Morocco, are portrayed as if they were obedient allies of Hitler, whereas they were, in fact, carrying out the terms of the French surrender to Germany in June 1940, and defending the integrity of French colonial territory against invaders.

Courtesy Flight 33 Productions, LLC

Indeed, no mention is made in the first episode (the only one available to me) of the complex situation in which the United States continued to recognize the legitimacy of Marshal Pétain’s government in Vichy, and kept an ambassador there, while the United Kingdom recognized General Charles DeGaulle’s France Libre, with its headquarters in London instead. The French in North Africa were therefore torn between conflicting loyalties, but determined to fulfill their obligations under the agreement with Germany, and to obey the orders of Marshal Pétain and his defense minister Admiral in Vichy for as long as they could. There is no hint of all this in showing Patton’s fight against the French forces in Morocco, or of Patton’s mixed emotions about having to fight the French, beside whom he had fought courageously in World War I.

“He was, in short, exactly the kind of general we don’t seem to produce anymore, to our cost in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Then, there is Patton himself, who is presented with a constant grimace on his face, and described as the ultimate warrior. Here too, there is substantial over-simplification. Patton’s personality was a complex one—he was obsessed with glory but behind the ivory-hilted pistols, the egomania, the forbidding scowl, and the rows of ribbons there was a much more ambiguous figure. Capable of great warmth and generosity, he was also impulsively outspoken (to his cost), alarmingly and sincerely convinced that he was the reincarnation of great warriors of the past, extremely competitive and occasionally guilty of outright disloyalty to his superiors, a xenophobe and by no means—judging from his diaries—an insensitive or natural hero.

There are people to whom heroism under fire comes naturally and seemingly without effort, but Patton was not one of them. He had to screw his courage to the sticking point, and that took its toll on a nervous system that was surprisingly delicate for a soldier, hence the outbursts against other generals, even when they were old friends, like Ike, and the famous “slapping incident” in Sicily. It is odd that we don’t hear Patton speak—almost everyone who met him was at first surprised by the incongruity of his high voice, despite the bellicose speeches to his troops (and to rival generals like Monty and Omar Bradley, both of whom had very little respect for Patton).

Actor George C. Scott portrays Gen. George S. Patton in the movie "Patton." (AP Photo)

In short, here was an opportunity to show a general and his campaigns “in the round.” Roughly 65 years have gone by since Patton’s victories, enough time to look back calmly at his strengths and weaknesses, and to show with what great effort (and at what personal cost) he turned himself into the bigger-than-life heroic figure whom George C. Scott caricatured so brilliantly in Patton (Richard Nixon’s favorite movie). While the technique of making a documentary has been given a big jump forward into computerized imagery, this portrait of Patton is still stuck at the level of World War II propaganda films. Just as we know by now that, however great a general Robert E. Lee was, there is very little doubt that the more cautious Longstreet was right to urge Lee to try and get around Meade’s left, rather to attempt three days of frontal attacks against an enemy entrenched on higher ground at Gettysburg, so we need a sense of Patton’s weaknesses and of the complexity of his mind.

In this first episode, for example, there is ample opportunity for an analysis of the different ways in which Patton and Rommel approached battle, and of Patton’s love of “the end run,” which he had put to such good use playing football at West Point, and which he turned into a trademark battle tactic. But we are given no sense here of the man’s many talents—he participated in the 1912 Olympics in the first modern pentathlon, he designed the U.S. Army’s new cavalry saber and wrote the book on its use, he and his friend Ike took the Army’s first tank apart down to the last nut and bolt and put it back together again to better understand how it worked, he won the admiration of Stalin and Hitler for his fast-moving tank advances. His passion for cleanliness and discipline helped to save his soldiers’ lives. He was, in short, exactly the kind of general we don’t seem to produce anymore, to our cost in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Patton 360, alas, is really only about 90 degrees of Patton. The techniques are there, but the overall vision isn’t, so it constantly has the feel of old stuff warmed up by a couple of bright kids with a computer, rather than a new way of looking at the man or the war. Ultimately, documentary films depend on two things: an objective, literate, and sometimes moving script, and a narrator whose calm voice and deep insights one comes to trust as the voice of truth, even the voice of God, rueful, far-seeing and forbiddingly well-informed, and both of these things are lacking.

Now if only these computer geniuses could be teamed with a real writer and a good narrator, and based on a worthwhile book, like William Manchester’s American Caesar, what a series of documentaries could be made about the life and times of, say, Douglas MacArthur.... We can only hope.

New York Times bestselling author Michael Korda's books include Ike, Horse People, Country Matters, Ulysses S. Grant, and Charmed Lives.